New Discoveries in Archaeology

I’ll try to add some additional posts over the holidays to catch people up on some recent discoveries.

Just in the news is the discovery of a 1,300 pound stone off of the coast of ancient Dor bearing an inscription dating from around the time of the second Jewish revolt against Rome (ca. 132 CE). The Greek text of seven lines mentions Gargilius Antiques, prefect of Judea. It is only the second time his name has been found in an inscription. Immediately after the revolt the Romans changed the name of the province from Judea to Syria-Palestine. The stone was buried in the sea and only just recovered for preservation. It is now on display at the University of Haifa.

During the second revolt, led by Simon bar Kokhba, hailed as the messiah by some, Christians were apparently charged with accepting Simon as messiah and aiding the revolt or face persecution. Christian Jews already had their messiah in Jesus and refused to accede to the revolutionary’s demands. Other Jews likely suffered from refusing to support Bar Kokhba as well.

The Last Surviving Crusader Capital in the Cenacle

In an article published in 1983, Bianca and Gustav Kühnel draw our attention to what may be the only Crusader-era capital remaining in the Upper Room of the Last Supper on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Now supporting the qubba (dome) over the stairway between the upper and lower chambers, the capital was apparently re-used by medieval Muslim architects and placed in its current position.


In style and size it is quite different from the capitals atop columns found elsewhere in the building. The authors point to the unique combination of motifs carved into the capital that reflect a developing Christian symbolism that combines the eagle, the rock, Christ, and Satan with baptism and the Eucharist. On the face of each capital are three eagles – the one in the center looks to the side as two other eagles (chicks?) place their heads upon its breast. Barely visible in their enlarged bills are small stones. The center eagle stands atop a frightening mask like a human face.


The Kühnels trace the development of the symbolism. In his first letter to the Corinthians (10:4), Paul writes of the water miraculously provided to the Hebrews who wandered in the desert for forty years with Moses: “They drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” Early church fathers also equated Christ, imagined as having flown back to his Father after his resurrection, to an eagle. In Greek mythology, the sea eagle could only rid itself of its incapacitatingly large bill by breaking it against a rock thereby allowing him to eat. This represented a conquest of old age and death. Writing to Christians of the fifth century, Augustine combines these and other motifs: “Old age sealed your mouth; the stone was given to you in order to vanquish old age and to renew your youth as the eagle did, in order to be able to eat the bread, that bread of which has been said: I am the living bread which came down from Heaven (John 6:41).” Here the stone symbolically becomes Christ in the form of the Eucharist. The eagle could likewise serve as a symbol of the communicant. And as the eagle is the natural enemy of the serpent, the serpent retains its representation as Satan.

According to the Kühnels, the twelve eagles on the capital represent the congregation of believing Christians. The stones they each hold in their oversized beaks are the bread of the Eucharist. The four medieval masks they stand upon represent Satan, symbol of death, who is conquered by those who partake of the life-affirming Eucharist. All in all, these are fitting motifs for the so-called Upper Room of the Last Supper.

According to the Kühnels, capitals with similar depictions have been found carved upon other twelfth-century capitals in Europe, particularly in France, as well as in Crusader-period Jerusalem structures. The date of the capital may be further narrowed to the time of the reign of Fulk V, Count of Anjou, and King of Jerusalem from 1131-1143.


Bianca and Gustav Kühnel, “An Eagle Physiologus Legend on a Crusader Capital from the Coenaculum,” in Norms and Variations in Art: Essays in Honor of Moshe Barasch (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1983), 36-48.


Back to the Alamo…

Things have been quiet this summer here at the blog but are already picking up quickly.

I will be presenting my paper discussing the question of whether the Upper Room in Jerusalem was ever a Jewish synagogue at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature in San Antonio on November 19 at 11:00 a.m. I will be on a panel with a number of great scholars such as Drs. F. Stanley Jones, Simon Mimouni, and others. The paper is called “Was the Tomb of David Built as a Synagogue? Further Evidence from Archaeology.”

An article on the Upper Room which I wrote for Biblical Archaeology Review will be featured in their “Archaeology Views” column in the January/February issue in 2017. It will be an attempt to bring readers up to date with where we are in Cenacle research. If you are not a subscriber to this wonderful publication and are interested in the historical aspects of the Bible, I strongly encourage you to subscribe. The rates are eminently reasonable for this colorful publication. And readers may attend a companion seminar that is always offered in tandem with the AAR/SBL meeting as noted above. So this year it will be held in San Antonio on the same dates. The BAR seminar features the very best Biblical scholars all targeting their presentations toward the discriminating non-professional.

I will likely be returning to Jerusalem during spring break 2017. This time I will be accompanied by a number of scholars from UNC Charlotte who will be examining various sections of Mount Zion using the latest technology to begin to assemble a picture of the area as it looked in the first century. Stay tuned for further developments.

And, as has become standard now, I am once again teaching a whole crop of new UNCC students the basics of New Testament history and textual criticism. I am looking forward to a very productive year.

With the next post, I hope to update you on some wonderful books I have been reading that I can recommend to my blog readers. Til next time…

Another Season Complete!

Digging at Mount Zion in Jerusalem, sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (where I teach!) has come to a close for this 2016 season. A great write-up about the dig and its associated discoveries was published July 13, 2016 in Jerusalem’s Haaretz news website in an article called “Archaeologists Uncover Second Temple-era Priestly Quarter of Jerusalem.” You can read it here:

Come join us next year for the final concluding season at this amazing site. No experience necessary! Check out for further information.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem


In Bethlehem, somewhat off the path beaten by most tourists, lies the Church of the Nativity, so called for the tradition that it was here in the manger-cave below that Jesus was born. The tradition is quite old and led the emperor Constantine to erect a basilica here in the early 4th century. Crusaders rebuilt and restored the church in the 12th century. Remains from both these eras are clearly visible in the lower levels of the structure.


As for the interior of the main church, it is, unfortunately, undergoing extensive restorative work and is mostly shrouded in tarpaulins and cannot be seen. Nevertheless, the cave in which Jesus was supposedly born remains somewhat accessible beneath this ornate shrine. (One may peer through the hole on the floor of the shrine to see the cave.)


Very beautiful to look at and peaceful to walk through is the courtyard outside the church. Statues of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and of St. Jerome, the Christian cleric and scholar who supposedly lived in the nativity cave in the fourth century, decorate the enclosed retreat.


Sacred Structures along the Kidron Valley and on the Mount of Olives


There are many sacred structures along the east side of Jerusalem, some dating back to before the time of King Herod (37-4 BCE). The oldest is the Tomb of the Bene-Hezir, a priestly family, from the 2nd century BCE. It can be seen to the left in the picture above. To its right is the monolithic Tomb of Zechariah, possibly built a century or two later. It is not the actual tomb of the Biblical prophet but may be associated with the Bene-Hezir tomb. Dating from the 1st century CE, the Tomb of Absalom sits to the left of both of these structures and can be seen beneath the trees in the photo below. Absalom was the son of King David who lived a thousand years earlier.


A number of other sacred structures, these Christian in nature, sit on the western slope of the Mount of Olives. Three can be seen in the photograph below.


On the bottom left is the Church of All Nations in Gethsemane. It supposedly marks the spot where Jesus prayed before being arrested. This 20th century church stands above the remains of Byzantine and Crusader-era churches. In the center, with the golden onion domes, is the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene. It was built in the 19th century. The mid-20th century church to the extreme upper right (blue dome) is the Dominus Flevit, meaning “the Lord wept.” It commemorates the spot where Jesus wept and prayed before his arrest. The remains of an earlier Crusader church lie nearby. Directly underneath the Dominus Flevit lie ancient tombs dating from the second-temple (pre-70 CE) to Byzantine periods.

Mount Zion, Jerusalem

Cenacle Aerial Shot 1

This photograph of the Cenacle, or Upper Room of the Last Supper, was taken from the rotunda of the Church of the Dormition. With the kind permission of Father Elias and the assistance of Lukas, a young volunteer worker from Cologne, I was able to access the top of the dome from which I could photograph much of Mount Zion.(The rotunda of the Dormition Church can be seen in the photo below to the right looming over the Cenacle like a protective parent.)


From the birds-eye view photo at the top, you can easily identify the Cenacle. It is delimited by Islamic structures on its roof built after the Ottoman takeover of the building in the 16th century. The minaret on the west end and the dome on the east mark the boundaries of the building. Note how other Ottoman-era buildings gradually sprang up to surround the Cenacle.

It was on the Cenacle’s north side, the foreground in the top photo, where the Byzantine and Crusader churches once stood. We are here in Jerusalem to research modern archaeological excavations that took place in this area. Quite a number of small digs were conducted in  and around the Cenacle. Once we assemble the results of those investigations we will be closer to understanding where the Cenacle fit architecturally among those larger structures.